Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal is growing on me:
The other night I took my 11-year-old son to see “Sully,” Clint Eastwood’s engrossing new film about Chesley Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who safely landed his stricken aircraft on the Hudson River on a frigid day in January 2009. After the movie, over burgers, we talked about the difference between heroism and fame.
“Famous people,” my son ventured, “depend on what other people think of them to be who they are. Sully just cared about whether he did everything right.”
On Monday night, after this column goes to press, two famous if decidedly unheroic people will debate who better deserves to be president, and nearly the only thing they have in common is their disdain for doing “everything right.” Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are our anti-Sullies—characters without character, famous for being famous, the type of adults we don’t want our children to become. How they got to where they are is one question. Another is how we raise more Sullies.
The answer the movie gives is: It’s not easy. In one scene, Sullenberger and his first officer, Jeffrey Skiles, go for an evening walk in Manhattan days after the water landing. They are the toast of the town, making the rounds of TV talk shows even as their days are otherwise spent addressing questions from crash investigators and sleeping at a Courtyard Marriott. “I guess I’m having trouble separating reality from whatever this is,” the captain says to his co-pilot.
“Whatever this is” is the representational side of American culture, not just media or celebrity culture, but what might be called posture culture—the incessant pretending-to-be that is such a part of modern life, and which digital and social media do so much to amplify. Posture culture is Mr. Trump discussing his wealth, brains and everything else that allegedly makes him big; it’s Hillary Clinton falsely claiming that as first lady she braved sniper fire while landing in Bosnia ….
Do read it all if you have children and the paywall doesn’t stop you. We’ll never regain a healthy culture until we know the differences among success, celebrity and notoriety.
I earlier tried to speak my mind about Donald Trump so I could thereafter leave the topic alone. It held for a while but then people started making powerful new observations I hadn’t considered, and I had to pass them on.
One of the most powerful is Alexi Sargeant’s Trump’s Revolt Against Vows, published just Tuesday, though there’s been enough discussion that it feels longer ago. It’s short and powerful.
This is the pivot paragraph, where Sargeant’s musing on vow-keeping became gripping:
Trump’s policies, such as they are, usually come down to America breaking its promises. In the debate, he doubled-down on his previous pledge to back out of defending our NATO allies (who came to our defense after 9/11). Later in the debate he casually said we can’t defend Japan, another nation with whom we have a mutual defense treaty. This promised perfidy is of a piece with his rhetoric about tearing up deals and starting trade wars ….
I consider his policy of promise-breaking one of the few things he’s said that you can rely on, since that is how he has operated in business. That’s how he thinks he’s going to Make American Great.
If that’s great, I’ll settle for mediocre.
If allowed to follow through, he will make America a stench in the world’s nostrils orders of magnitude worse than the Establishment has done over past decades, and eventually there will be hell to pay.
Meanwhile, at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, David Post (An open letter to Volokh Conspiracy readers who are Trump supporters) makes the same fundamental point I made, at greater length:
[L]et me ask a couple of questions, regarding things that I really do not understand in connection with Trump’s candidacy. I understand many people’s hostility to Hillary Clinton, though I don’t share it to a great degree, and I understand the desire for “change” in Washington, and the notion that the ruling elites have failed miserably to address many of our problems. And I understand that people can have different, and more Trump-friendly, views than mine on all sorts of policy questions, on everything from immigration to gun rights to international trade and the rest.
I get all that. But here’s what I don’t get. Trump is unstable — what the Arizona Republic newspaper, in endorsing a Democratic nominee for the first time in its 126-year history, called his “inability to control himself or be controlled by others,” and his “reckless … lack of propriety” — and unstable people should not be put in command of our armed forces and our nuclear codes. The U.S. commander in chief has awesome, and virtually unconstrained, power to commit U.S. forces to battle and to dictate to the generals — generals sworn to obey his orders — how those battles should be fought, up to and including the use of nuclear weapons.
For me, the election conversation really starts, and ends, here, before you get to immigration policy, or climate change, or SCOTUS appointments, or international trade, or law and order, or any of the other issues the next president will have to deal with, and I don’t understand how Trump supporters get past this point.
So my question is: Which part of that formulation do you disagree with? That he’s dangerously unstable? Or that it matters, as a dispositive criterion for choosing a president? Trump has a secret plan to deal with the Islamic State; you trust that he will act reasonably and prudently in pursuit of that plan because …?
I don’t mean these as rhetorical questions, and I’m not trying to be snarky or sarcastic. I genuinely cannot imagine an argument in support of putting that kind of power — the power to kill, and to get American soldiers killed — into this guy’s hands.
And please, if you do care to respond, I ask that you NOT tell me about how terrible you think Hillary Clinton is. I get that; many of you think she’s an abomination. Many of you may even think that she’s dangerously unstable and shouldn’t be entrusted with the commander in chief’s power. Fine; put that all aside. My question isn’t “Whom do you like more, Trump or Clinton?,” nor is it “Why aren’t you supporting Hillary Clinton?” (or Gary Johnson, for that matter). It’s a much simpler question, and it’s just about Donald Trump. For purposes of this question, it doesn’t matter who he’s running against; the failings of other candidates don’t affect his standing on the one test that matters most of all. If you’re a supporter, I assume that you’ve satisfied yourself that he will exercise the rather awesome and terrifying powers of the U.S. commander in chief in a reasonable manner, and I’m curious as to how you’ve done that.
Post continues that Trump is a lifelong conman:
So even if you like all his policies, what makes you think he will follow through with anything he promises? Why would you believe that? Don’t you think that you’re going to wake up one morning during a Trump presidency and smack your forehead with your palm and say, “Damn! He conned us!”? If not, why not?
I am so abashed that my fair state is poised to deliver its electoral votes to this crazed charlatan.
* * * * *
“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)